It’s probably the most famous “tubing” experience in the world, at least for anyone who has gone backpacking or on a gap year adventure in southeast Asia. And while the tubing experience in Vang Vieng, Laos is changing dramatically, it’s still worthwhile — if your expectations are set. So here’s what you should know for your Vang Vieng tubing experience.
Why is Vang Vieng Tubing Notorious?
Let’s cut to the chase. Likely, the only reason you even know about the rural town of Vang Vieng, Laos is because of tubing. If you’ve been researching a trip in SE Asia and Laos, then there’s no doubt that you’ve run across hundreds of blogs talking about the crazy time they had in Vang Vieng. From excessive drinking, drugs, playing in the water, zip lining through trees, and “death swings” into the water.
To the outsider, it seems like Vang Vieng is the ultimate party town. In fact, the town center is full of budget guesthouses and hostels that cater to backpackers looking to party. Many of them even offer free whisky nightly in their common areas, and numerous restaurants openly advertise “happy pizza” and “balloons.”
All of this has led to the town’s party reputation. And “tubing” the river is at the forefront of the experience. However, it doesn’t take much common sense to see this dangerous combination would have negative consequences.
Over the years since Vang Vieng’s tubing and tourism explosion, there has been countless deaths on the river…including 27 in one particular year alone!
Reality Check: The Party is Over…Or Is It?
Tubing and playing in the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng, Laos has always been a favorite pastime and way to cool off for the locals. But the “tubing” most of us know started years ago when some foreign backpackers came to travel and do some work in the area, and then wanted to cool off and unwind after a long day. Over time, a bunch of bars began to spring up along the banks, word got out…and the party got bigger!
Needless to say, having nearly 30 young tourists die in your country in one year can lead to some serious international pressure to clean up your act. So a few years ago the government came in, closing down the bars and taking down all those “death swings.”
The party was over. But after some time had passed, things slowly started going back to the party days. Bars started opening up again on the river, thousands of “tubers” came to party, and some people said that the town was nearly as crazy as before it was shut down.
In fact, prior to our visit to Vang Vieng, we were told that the party was still happening. However, our experience in Vang Vieng proved otherwise. During our float down the river, we saw numerous “ghost bars” – and remnants of tree swings and zip lines all around. There were only 2 bars open on the river. A couple of the bar workers told us that just a few months prior, there was another death…and so the government had cracked down again!
So for those of you wanting to experience Vang Vieng tubing, it’s hard to say what the situation will be like if you come to visit in the future. It seems like it’s an ongoing transition and lot of back and forth. But there’s no doubt that the Vang Vieng tubing experience will never be to the crazy level that it was back in the 2011 “death days.”
And honestly, that’s a good thing.
Vang Vieng Tubing is Still Worth It!
Vang Vieng, Laos is an amazingly beautiful place and are nature-lovers at heart! So for us, “tubing” in the way that most backpackers think of it, was never the most important reason for us to come to Vang Vieng. Sure, lounging on a tube and having a few drinks sounded like fun, but we weren’t primarily looking for a raging party.
For many visitors, it’s satisfying enough to just enjoy the scenic surroundings on a tube or kayak. The sight of the majestic karst mountains that shoot straight up into the sky all around you, to the lush greenery on the banks and open fields. The peaceful sounds of the flowing water, as well as the birds and other wildlife, make for a tranquil experience.
In the end, we loved our experience in Vang Vieng tubing the river! It was a perfect day just relaxing in a beautiful setting, cooling off in the river, and gazing up at some beautiful mountains while we lounged lazily on a tube.
— Josh & Liz (@PeanutsPretzels) May 16, 2016
We also enjoyed seeing the locals out having picnics along the river, and kids jumping off the bridges and playing in the water. In fact, Josh got swarmed by a bunch of kiddos at one point on his tube. I think they liked swimming under water and popping out to catch us by surprise. I also got pummeled in a water fight with a few of them while going under a makeshift bamboo bridge.
It was a blast, but if you are only looking to party…you may be disappointed.
Vang Vieng Tubing: Expectations & the Details
After our experience in Vang Vieng tubing on the river, here are some of our main tips if you want to come to Vang Vieng to go tubing:
The Tubes & Prices
You can only get tubes in the center of town (near the Y in the street) near the Luang Prabang Bakery. There are only 2 companies, they alternate days they are open. As of today, they charge 55,000 kip for a tube + 60,000 deposit (yes, more for the deposit!).
After you sign the paperwork and pay, you can get in tuk-tuk and they will take you to the launch point (with tubes on top of the tuk-tuk). Be aware that at some times the line can get long (probably around lunch), but if you come around 2 pm, there may not be many other people. If there aren’t enough people to fill the tuk-tuk (it holds 10 – 12) then they will charge you to drive you to the launch point!
The Bars Along the River
We came during dry season, so the river is lower and slower. They dropped us off near the Organic Farm, just north of town. We could already hear the music from the first bar when we got into our tubes, so it wasn’t far away — just around the first bend.
Easily one of the coolest tubing experiences we have ever had. With beautiful natural scenery surrounding us and gorgeous #Laos mountains made for a great float down the river. #adventure #POPLaos #explore #lppathfinders #water #river #VangVieng @chacofootwear #chacolife #travel #travelgram #iphoneonly
A photo posted by Peanuts or Pretzels (@peanutsorpretzels) on
There are people out in the water and on shore who are working with the bar, they will help push you to the shore and even throw ropes out to you to reel you in. When you arrive, just place your tube on the stack and go (beware of being the last people to leave, because some people sneak their way to the bar and steal tubes without paying).
There were only 2 bars operating when we were floating the river, and honestly, we didn’t find them to be much fun. We found the first bar to be the most fun, with people hanging out and even playing some games. When we arrived at the second (and last) bar, it seemed like there were only 5 other people there! It seemed everyone stayed for a long time at the first bar, and people didn’t even start showing up to the last bar until about 4 pm!
** Drinks **
Beer prices were around 25,000 kip for a large bottle — compared to 10,000 kip in town. Buckets and other spirits were cheaper at the first bar, around 30,000 kip…but crazy expensive at the last bar – at 60,000 kip for a slushie bucket!
Getting Back to Town – They Getcha!
Here’s where some knowledge will come in handy. You see, the bars are actually quite a distance from town — and it takes hours to float the river. People partying and having fun at the bars aren’t really paying attention to the clock. And when it’s time to leave, they think they have a short float back…
The tube company will fine you 20,000 kip (taken from your 60,000 kip deposit) if you return the tube after 6 pm. If you return after 8 pm (not fun floating the river in the dark anyway) they keep all your deposit.
Since so many people leave the bars too late, there are tuk-tuks near the last bar, as well as along the river banks. When it’s about 5 pm they start shouting at you and offer to take you into town…for a fee. One of our friend’s took the tuk-tuk at the 2 km point upstream, and he said he paid 10,000 kip per person for a ride.
As for us, we left the last bar at 4 pm…and arrived into town at 6:15! We floated all the way, and paddled our butts off too because the water was moving so slow. We lost 20,000 kip of our deposit because it was after 6 pm, but got 40, 000 kip back because it was before 8 pm.
We Actually Floated the River…Everyone Else Just Paid a Lot to Drink!
In the end, we learned the real scheme of things. You pay 55,000 kip for your tube, then a fat deposit. They drive you upriver where people spend hundreds of thousands on drinks (we only had 3 beers and a sandwich…and we still spent almost 100,000 kip at the bars!). Then people stay there hanging out for so long that they don’t have time to float back to town.
So they either pay a tuk-tuk to take them back, or they float into town late and lose their expensive deposit. I’m sure many people ended up paying 200,000 – 500,000+ kip for a day at the bar in a bathing suit.
We noticed that in the end, many people hardly floated the river at all. In fact, we only saw a few other people floating with us. And after the 2 km tuk-tuk pick up point, no one was on the river with us!
Josh and I enjoyed the ride — peacefully floating down the river late in the evening, with no others around.
Would We Go Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos Again?
Yes, but a little different. Overall, we really enjoyed our experience on the river, but it wasn’t really for the bars. We started floating around 1 pm, and it still took us until 6:15 — with only 2 short stops at the bars. The river is definitely slow during dry season!
Had we known, we would have gone earlier in the morning, maybe around 11 am. Also, we would have not stayed so long at the bars (even though we really didn’t stay long) — that way we would have enjoyed the ride more and not had to paddle so hard to get back to town before dark. And we would have saved all our deposits.
In the end, we really had a lot of fun in Vang Vieng tubing the river – we found it so relaxing and peaceful. And while there’s still a little bit of the party left, you will be hugely disappointed if that’s the only reason for coming here. But honestly, the best thing about Vang Vieng is not the river or the partying. It’s the gorgeous natural scenery, and outdoor activities that make this town a great place to visit.
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